25 Years Later is a new series of posts where we take a look how some of my personal favorite albums have stood the test of time as they celebrate their Silver Anniversary. First up, one of the first great records to come out in 1991 – Motörhead’s 1916.
It’s fitting in so many ways that the first album from 1991 that we look at this year is this one. The timing is obviously apparent with the recent passing of Motörhead’s heart and soul, Lemmy Kilmister. But it’s also apropos because, as of this writing, we are almost exactly 25 years to the day of its original release – January 21, 1991. What a better way to kick off the year than with looking back at an album that kicked off an amazing year for metal music in general. While most people look back at 1991 and think about Metallica’s ‘Black’ album, the reality for the metal underground was that some of the genres most extreme sub-sects were enjoying a blossoming that would change the face of metal music in general. Somewhere between the train and the station, between the Metallica rocket that was hurtling towards the infinite light of the mainstream sun and the graffiti-speckled, brick and mortar of the underground metal scene lived Motörhead.
With one snake-skin boot firmly planted in the gutter and one mangled, blood-soaked fist in the gold Motörhead was able to maintain a virtually unanimous love from music fans who often purposely eschewed anything else that a major label would have the audacity to pitch to them. While Motörhead has one of the most recognizable sounds ever conceived, and a formula for writing their brand of biting, punk-infused heavy metal, their career was filled with moments where experimentation wasn’t frowned upon. 1916 just happened to be the album where a big chunk of those moments exist.
I was 16 in 1991. My tastes in metal were still relatively young, having cut my teeth on the great waves of traditional, speed and thrash metal that cluttered the shelves of all the local record shops in the mid to late 1980s. I had also, by this point, already begun my long and fascinating journey down the rabbit hole of extreme metal. Death metal, grindcore, black metal, doom, you name it I was already doing everything I could to devour it. But my love of the extremes didn’t deter my love and loyalty to the metal bands I had first fallen in love with. Scream and tremolo pick and blast beat all you, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden were still my favorites, and Motörhead was always a band whose albums I’d still reach for when the mood for something fast and pissed struck. Maybe it was my simultaneous discovery of punk rock? Maybe it was the fact that Lemmy was always one of the most bad-ass people in rock n’ roll (especially to a 16 year old)? Whatever the reason, I always had a thing for this band, even when their output started to dip in quality from such classic titles as Ace of Spades and Iron Fist (still my two favorite Motörhead albums, and ones I stumbled upon years after their release). So it was with great anticipation that I ran out and bought a cassette version of this album – that I still own to this day. And yes, cassette over vinyl because I could listen to it anytime I wanted on a Walkman.
I think a lot of hardcore fans were initially caught off-guard by this album, but in hindsight they shouldn’t have been. The previous studio effort, 1987’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, was received in a lukewarm manner, and frankly it deserves to be so as it’s a flat and somewhat uninspired album that has not stood the test of time as well as what came immediately before and after it. Just prior to recording this album Lemmy relocated himself from London to Los Angeles. In need of a spark, with a new, glittery city as the backdrop, it makes perfect sense that 1916 would be a collection of songs that took Motörhead in a dozen different directions. Luckily for Lemmy and his merry band of miscreants, those songs are not only wholly memorable, but 25 years later it still sounds like the breath of fresh air that they were all probably searching for.
The album opens with the two songs that are the most “Motörhead” of the bunch. “The One To Sing The Blues” and “I’m So Bad (Baby I Don’t Care)” are absolute rippers and the perfect way to start off the album. It’s a solid one-two punch to the throat and typical Motörhead without sounding stale or rehashed. After that is where it gets ‘weird’ as the band begins what is essentially a nine-track experimentation in how far they can push their sound without completely blowing the whole thing up. “No Voices In The Sky” and “Going To Brazil” are essentially a more accessible version of what had come before it, complete with damn-near radio friendly choruses and a certain melodiousness that this band would have snarled at a decade earlier. “Nightmare/The Dreamtime” is where the whole thing really takes a left-hand turn though as the band turns in a synth-heavy track more akin to doom and post-metal than anything Motörhead had been peddling prior. This was followed up by the ballad “Love Me Forever” which was exactly what you would want in a Motörhead ballad, including lyrics such as “…faith unto death or a knife in your eye…” The perfect amount of charm and cheek melded together in the way that only Lemmy could pull off.
Speaking of cheek, “Angel City” was Lemmy’s homage to his new home, including lines about “drinking Bon Jovi’s booze for free.” It painted the perfect picture of a city that we had all spent the last decade wondering if God would smite it for its collective, unrepentant sins like Sodom and Gomorrah. It also featured saxophones, which honestly, hearing for the first time was as much a shock to the system as a trip to the Playboy Mansion. While “Make My Day” and “Shut You Down” were the closest Motörhead would come to revisiting their classic sound on the back half of the record, they were followed up by the band’s punk rock tribute to the Ramones, and the powerfully gripping tribute to the multitude of lives lost in World War I on the title track, respectively. With the title track being nothing more than Lemmy half-singing and some sparse accompaniment, it was a stunning way to finish off the album, complete with a tone that was the exact opposite of the previous ten tracks.
At the end of the day you could argue that the Sunset Strip had it’s sleazy, strip-club-loving fingers all over this album. Minus the tear-jerking finale, it was clear that Lemmy was having fun again and that enthusiasm poured over into the music. While the end result wasn’t always in line with the “Motörhead sound” it certainly gave the band new life and a was the start of a renaissance of sorts. They would be nominated for a Grammy (which they lost to Metallica) and “The One To Sing The Blues” would go all the way to #45 on the singles chart in the U.S. Amazing for a band that had built a career on not giving two flying farts what the critics thought of their music.
While it might not ever be in the conversation of greatest Motörhead albums, 1916 still stands the test of time and 25 year later is still a must own album.